“As the shadow follows the body”

Examining Chekhov’s creation of character through “Eastern” practices

Authored by: Jerri Daboo

The Routledge Companion to Michael Chekhov

Print publication date:  May  2015
Online publication date:  May  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415710183
eBook ISBN: 9781315716398
Adobe ISBN: 9781317506867


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Michael Chekhov’s theatre studio in Dartington Hall, Devon, opened in October 1936. As part of the opening, there was a performance given by Indian dancer Uday Shankar, who was one of the many international artists to visit or be based in Dartington. After seeing Shankar perform, Chekhov said:

What does it mean to do something with our whole being? Shankar can lift one eyebrow and we say – how beautifully he dances. Words are so clever but movement is simpler. Therefore we can begin our work with movement, with Psychological Gesture, and let the words come on the movement. Your body must say the words.

(1937) This chapter will explore the meeting between Chekhov and Shankar, and the influence they had on each other. Chekhov shows evidence of the use of “Eastern” 1 practices in his work through adaptation of techniques from yoga that he had first encountered with Stanislavsky and Sulerzhitsky at the First Studio of the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT), and which informed the development of his own work subsequently. In addition, there was the major influence of anthroposophy, which is discussed elsewhere in this book. Steiner had previously been involved with theosophy, which took many of its ideas from interpretations of philosophies and practices from India. So we may find traces of an “Eastern” influence in Chekhov’s work, even though he himself never visited India. Recently scholars have begun to examine Stanislavsky’s “Eastern self” (Carnicke 2000). I propose to examine the influence that practices from India had on Chekhov’s work, both literally and metaphorically. This examination begins with a historical investigation, focusing on Uday Shankar and his meetings with Chekhov in Dartington, charting the influence that they had on each other subsequently. Following this I revisit aspects of Chekhov’s work in the light of Phillip Zarrilli’s discussion of the practice of kathakali, a form of dance-drama from Southern India. While acknowledging that Chekhov himself did not know or study kathakali directly, placing his approach to creating character using body, mind, breath, and voice in the context of this practice may aid in illuminating the psychophysical process for the performer, where transformation of “self” may liberate the actor from “the shadow that follows the body” and lead to a state of creative inspiration.

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